Are we headed for a new 'Golden Age' of scientific discovery in the Middle East?

As the United Nations celebrates 150 years since the periodic table of chemical elements was constructed, we look back at centuries of science in the region

MOSCOW, RUSSIA  FEBRUARY 6, 2019: Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev speaks at the opening ceremony of International Year of the Periodic Table 2019 at the offices of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS); 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements and has been proclaimed the "International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (IYPT2019)" by the United Nations and UNESCO. Sergei Bobylev/TASS (Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images)
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In July 2020, the Emirates Mars Mission will launch its Hope spacecraft from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan. Funded by the UAE Space Agency, the expedition will involve a rocket travelling about 60 million kilo­metres from Earth to arrive at the Red Planet in 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE. As far as scientific engineering, technique and know-how is concerned, planning a 200-day voyage to the fourth planet from the sun, to explore and examine its atmosphere, is right up there with the best of modern innovation and ambition.

Another example of ingenious scientific advancement occurred 150 years ago, when Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev discovered the fundamental building blocks of our planet. This year is the Inter­national Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Ele­ments, a United Nations-inspired celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of its constructionthe table which has enabled the work of scientists, and scientific discoveries, the world over.

A space mission to Mars map sits on the wall of the UAE Space Agency exhibition stand on the second day of the 14th Dubai Air Show at Dubai World Central (DWC) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. The Dubai Air Show is the biggest aerospace event in the Middle East, Asia and Africa and runs Nov. 8 - 12. Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

The periodic table's creation in 1869 signalled a new era for science across the globe, including right here in the Middle East. But since then, what has been the trajectory of ­scientific advancements and achievements here? Do impressive space engineering projects in the UAE or elsewhere truly reflect the state of science in this region today?

Re-discovering the 'Golden Age' 

Science has a great pedigree in the Muslim and Arabic-­speaking world. The so-called "Golden Age" of Islamic discovery more than 1,000 years ago is often seen as the pinnacle of the region's scienti­fic achievements. Carried out by Muslim innovators, scholars and thinkers, this vaunted period, which seemed to rise and then fall away into oblivion, was a time when some, such as ­Syrian physician Ibn Al-Nafis, delved into the inner workings of the human body, while others, such as Iranian polymath Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, gazed heavenwards for a greater understanding of our universe.

A9JCF8 Ibn Al nafis 1213 1288 AD. Image shot 2000. Exact date unknown. Alamy

Academic Jorg Matthias Determann says this understanding of the "Golden Age" is too simplistic and says the Gulf's embrace of all things space-age is simply an extension of the Islamic world's past fascination with our solar system. "I don't think that science ever fully disappeared in the Arab Middle East," says the author, who wrote Space Science and the Arab World: Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East. "There's a lot of romanticisation of the 'Golden Age', which means that anything that comes after that [in the region] seems dark, in decline or in stagnation."

Determann argues that Europe's accelerated techno­logical advancement is the primary reason for what many cite as the mid-13th-century decline – and subsequent death – of Islamic and Arab innovation. But he says that, as western ideas and influence began to flow into the region, the Middle East's modern story of science, and space science especially, began to take shape in the 19th century.

"In the 1870s, an astronomical as well as metrological observatory was established at the Syrian Protestant College, later renamed the American University of Beirut," explains the German-born academic. "This was very quickly linked, by telegraph, to an observatory in ­Istanbul and to observatories in Europe."

'Continuous growth'

As Arabic language scientific journals were established, such as the widely distributed periodical Al-Muqtataf (The Digest) in 1876, ideas began to spread among the Christian and Muslim populations. Following the dissemination of knowledge to schools, and the creation of state universities, there was, says Determann, a "continuous growth" of science in the region. To this extent, many Arabs, such as Egyptian-born space scientist Farouk El-Baz, who worked on Nasa's Apollo space programme from 1967 to 1972, made laudable contributions to our fast-changing world.

I knew that my performance must be at a higher level than the best of them

"I focused on astronaut safety," El-Baz tells The National. "We all knew there were enormous dangers and that our selection had to be 100 per cent safe. Thus, I concentrated on doing the best possible job as a team member."

Yet he always felt that the fact he hailed from the Arab world meant he was representing the region. "I knew that my performance must be at a higher level than the best of them. I ­certainly was aware that I represented a whole culture," he says. "This was reflected in my work and the impact it created. I am very proud of the results and the effects that they created throughout the Apollo programme."

It was more than a small step for El-Baz, but didn't prove to be a giant leap for Arabs, as many observers still believe that the region's penchant for pursuing fields such as space science is something of a fig leaf.

Egyptian scientist Farouk El-Baz, third from left, was secretary of Nasa’s Lunar Landing Site Selection Committee during the world’s first Moon landings. Courtesy Farouk El-Baz

Afreen Siddiqi, a scholar with the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School in Boston, laments the lack of "indigenous science" in the region. "It's basically based on efforts, and quite frankly knowledge, the bulk of which resides elsewhere, outside those countries," says Siddiqi, who has investigated the wealth of scientific research in the Middle East and North Africa. "Essentially, most of the [Arab] countries are working off an importing model – but does that really mean there's an inherent scientific capacity [in the region]? I would actually argue absolutely not."

Siddiqi adds that, when it comes to measuring scientific capacity in any given country or region, it is the home-grown nature of the science itself that is of particular importance. "When we say science is great in the US or has strengthened significantly in China, what we're really talking about is that these countries are capable of innovation, of doing indigenous ­scientific research, versus just relying on importing know­ledge and technologies," she explains. 

While highlighting the distinct lack of new discoveries in the region, Siddiqi, who is from Pakistan originally, applauds investments specifically in the education sector that are intended to make good on the promise that undoubtedly exists. For instance, the King ­Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which opened in Saudi Arabia in 2009, is estimated to have a $20 billion (Dh73.4bn) endowment. Indeed, Nam Pyo Suh, a member of the Board of Trustees at KAUST, last year wrote in Arab News that the acclaimed institution had "one of the largest endowments in the world, second only to Harvard University in the United States".

KPBR6G King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. Alamy

But while the Arab world has its fair share of talented individuals, a brain drain often results in its highly educated scientists leaving the region for the bright lights of Europe or the US, where more opportunities abound. Another challenge facing the region is female access to science roles. According to Unesco, women currently account for just some 30 per cent of the scientific research workforce globally. In the Middle East and North Africa, this figure is an even more paltry 17 per cent.

That said, a 2018 report by Times Higher Edu­cation found the number of female students in the UAE enrolling in Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is far higher than in many other countries around the world. Almost eight in 10 learners taking computer science studies here are female and nearly 45 per cent of students in engineering are female, which is well above statistics in Germany (20.8 per cent), Canada (20.4 per cent) and the United Kingdom (18 per cent). So perhaps it's only a matter of time before the (periodic) tables are turned.

Onwards and upwards

No matter what the statistics show, what cannot be denied is the attempt, from the UAE and elsewhere in the region, to at least keep pace with ongoing trends. The Emirate's engagement with space is the stuff of dreams for scientists. And as the first Arab Islamic space programme in history, the Emirates Mars Mission will certainly symbolise another bold chapter on a global cosmic journey that began with ­Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's pioneering trip to space in 1961.

Today, the Emirati space race signals an effort to get a stronger foothold in an exciting era of science. "It's a way of saying, 'we [in the Arab world] have always been scientific,'" Determann says. "That 'we were at the forefront of science 1,000 years ago, and we are at the forefront of science now – and that Arabs and Muslims are part of the future'."